Part 7) The Golden years ... or why we know what we like even if we know about art

At the same stage in the Second War the whole world had the mental tool box to see and understand an image like this, us plebs could see past it’s shortcomings to a deeper reality, a bit like a language that had suddenly developed a grammar to go with all the words.

The former looks stilted, posed and old fashioned, the latter would be accepted and fully understood today as a man in immediate contact with an enemy, it could have been taken yesterday.

While the PJs were risking their necks to send images back from the Spanish war, Gerda Taro paid with her twenty some year old life, the best that high-art had to offer was, by the consensus of those that know, Guernica. Without wishing to be unkind to comrade P. Guernica isn’t the easiest picture to appreciate and hasn’t got a particularly strong narrative, and one would have thought he could have gone to the trouble of doing something new instead of altering one he’d made earlier, but never mind eh.

Contrast Guernica with Capa’s d-day shots, not only are Capa’s more easily understood they are also surprisingly more abstracted.

While Picasso agonised about collaboration and having sex with his young models in the south of France, Capa was going forward with a section fire party outside Cordoba. The contrast couldn't have been greater, these new Photojournalists lived in a world that had lead in the air and its' people had blood on their hands.

(Again highly opinionated but the path of vernacular art to me ran on through Turner and Monet then took a left at Picasso Hepworth and Moore becoming steadily more irrelevant is it went, it’s now living in Islington, paying for sex with its sister and producing ever more imbecile offspring.

Vernacular art was on the other hand, reignited by Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Co in the golden years around World War 2 and that new set of visual conventions dragged Bacon back to proper work, inspired the Hockney, Gormley and Banksy to make art inclusive again)

If one looks at photography's growth from the start of the Spanish war to the end of the Korean some 20ish years later just concider the huge amount of money the public had spent on the likes of Picture Post, Paris Match, Life, Sports illustrated and that German one with the snappy title. Then there were the newspapers that built their reputations on pictorial content, by the end of the war every nation on Earth must have had a New York times or a Daily Mirror, or the smouldering remains of one anyway, despite the letterpress process being little better than a woodcut the public demand was still enormous.

It was a disparate group of people that fed its growth with images and it was those all pervasive images that set in stone the publics view of what a "good picture" is; and left Picasso et el largely irrelevant, if interesting, minority pursuit. They were not in any way photojournalists at this stage, they were shooting current events and they were telling a story but they were absolutely not impartial, even the bourgeois Cartier-Bresson dressed to the left and Capa was almost an exile because of his radicalism. When Adolph put together the longest chorus-line in history and started touring Europe they provided the public with some pretty critical reviews.

I think I'm correct in saying that along with potatoes newspapers were never rationed during the Second War, being as important to the war effort as the absence of hunger …

Looking back we see a homogenous group with a common purpose, at the time this lot were far from the founding fathers revered today over on rff, they were in fact a bunch of displaced Jews, political radicals and writers, with the odd English eccentric and bourgeois Frenchman who had proved a big disappointment to his dad. Alike only in so far as form follows function, and war is a young mans sport, Cartier-Bresson being a little older had the greater respect for rifle fire so tended to spend more time in the rear.

They were in a world where their skills were in demand, the press threw money at them, they were famous, they got to sleep with beautiful women, and go drinking with Hemingway; one can see why there were one or two egos floating about. Imagine that lot trying to get a US visa today, that story about Cartier-Bressonis, Hemingway and the Brownie is so funny because it's so close to the truth. The thing is, these chaps were in competition with each other, Magnum was years in the future, mid 40's? they only started co-operating when the going got tougher.

They would have been looking with huge interest at each others work, at what was getting the front pages, the papers would have been comparing circulation like excited public-schoolboys, a hothouse in which this bunch of left wing radicals and writers were striving to improve their skills and seeking the best kit and processing. As far as I know non had any artistic training apart from Cartier-Bresson and there was little history of off tripod photography to draw on …

Many of this original group were writers so the idea of narrative came easily to them and I suppose each would bring a different set of skills to this new media and it would be the mixture of those skills that created the genera, in turn it was that genera that provided the public with it's news information until TV and video took over in the 60's and remains as the publics graphic vernacular to this day.

Now don't get me wrong here I'm not that keen on Cartier-Bresson, I've seen his negs, technically challenged springs to mind, as do pompous, bourgeois and elitist, however while Capa was one of many that brought a reckless bravery, swarthy good looks and improbably thick hair to the table, Cartier-Bresson seems to be, uniquely, the one with the artistic skills. Cartier-Bresson's personal tastes lay in surrealism and cubism so were useless in such a graphic medium, as Man Ray proved, but the classical stuff Cartier-Bresson had learned from his uncle (I think) would have given him a head start on the others. He would have perhaps advised his friends and been copied by his competitors, it was a mix of mainly classical composition and proportion, with an alertness to the Gestalt philosophy, and occasionally an eye for the surreal that informed the aesthetic.

The equipment also brought something new to the party faster films got the cameras off tripods and introduced background, and movement blur and the new generation of superfast f1.5 lenses brought flare and recession through shallow DOF all of which would have been seen as faults in 1930, became just another tool to tell the story with by 1950 and sadly spawned the bokeh cliche by 2005. Cinematographers still cling to film to retain them and CGI has programs to mimic these one-time faults because they have become so much a part of our understanding.

So I can make a case for the our world visual vernacular springing from this group then being fixed in the 60's, when video took over, the military were excluding them from the battlefield, and governments were demanding "impartiality". The founding fathers went off to bask in their glory, or die in some foreign field if they couldn't kick the adrenalin habit. By the 60's it was the likes of Bailey, Lichfield and that Irish chap got to play with the toy box and very quickly homogenised the worlds view of fashion, celebrity and the rest, it's within the confines of that toy box we have to make and judge our pictures today.

In the 30's every nation and region had it's own style and tastes ...

... by the 60's things were fundamentally different, we quite correctly pointed and laughed at Morris-dancers

As I said at the start it's just my opinion, conjecture not a full blown theory, I only thought about it a lot because David Bailey got the job I really wanted.